Sydney Cohen obituary

Other lives: Scientist who played a key role in the fight against malaria

My father, Sydney Cohen, a scientist with a deep love of nature, who has died aged 95, developed from his South African education and wide travels in Africa a determination to vanquish malaria, the continent’s scourge.

His pursuit of a vaccine led, in 1961, to a landmark paper in Nature, co-written with Ian McGregor, that found that immunoglobulin from immune Gambian adults had an anti-parasitic effect when administered to infected children. While variation in parasites has precluded to this day an effective vaccine against all strains of malaria, Sydney was one of the first to show that successful vaccination was possible, using forms of the parasite that live in the blood.

In recognition of his work, Sydney was elected a fellow of the Royal Society and was appointed CBE in 1978. He was a member of the Medical Research Council and chairman of its Tropical Medicine Research Board (1974-76).

He was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, the last of four children of Pauline (nee Soloveychik) and Morris Cohen, Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. His grandfather, Shmuel, had opened a wholesale grocery in downtown Johannesburg. Sydney completed a medical degree at the University of the Witwatersrand, before sailing to Britain on SS Nestor, arriving 10 days after the end of the second world war in Europe. At the Royal Berkshire hospital, in Reading, he treated the war injured – and was astounded to see a white woman on her hands and knees cleaning the floor.

The ensuing decade was spent moving back and forth between Britain and South Africa, where Sydney’s last post was as dean of the one remaining residence for black students at Wits. He repeatedly had to extricate his talented black students from unjustified arrest by the police force. By the time the student house was finally shut down in 1963 under the tightening grip of apartheid, Sydney had emigrated, disgusted by the waste of South Africa’s human potential.

In London, Sydney worked at the National Institute for Medical Research in Mill Hill, north London, and then at St Mary’s hospital, Paddington, where his talents as an immunologist were recognised by Rodney Porter, who would win the Nobel prize for medicine in 1972 for determining the chemical structure of an antibody. From 1965 until his retirement in 1986, he was professor of chemical pathology at Guy’s hospital, and he was chair from 1976 to 1981 of the World Health Organisation’s steering committee on the immunology of malaria.

Sydney enjoyed painting, gardening, carpentry and golf. He had a marvellously deadpan sense of humour. When a South African relative suggested he change his name, because Cohen was too conspicuously Jewish to make it in Britain, he said that was a wonderful idea – and suggested Einstein, instead.

In 1950 he married June Adler, a magistrate whom he met at a tennis party at her grandfather’s house in Johannesburg. June died in 1999. That year he married Deirdre Boyd, who had assisted him at Guy’s, and later they moved to St Andrews, on Scotland’s east coast, where he was a member of the Royal and Ancient golf club.

Deirdre survives him, as do his children from his first marriage, me and my sister, Jenny, six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Roger Cohen

The GuardianTramp

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